EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the dedication of a new memorial to the civil-rights leader on the National Mall. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., is in her 11th term as a nonvoting member of Congress. She helped organize the March on Washington and describes herself as a "child of the civil-rights movement." Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Where were you and what were you doing on August 28, 1963?
I came back from the Mississippi Delta, where I was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worker, to join the staff of the March on Washington in New York. Bayard Rustin, the master organizer of the march, had me doing everything from speaking to groups about why we were marching “for jobs and freedom” to helping line up buses around the country to take people to Washington.
The night before the march, I volunteered to stay at the office to answer last-minute calls, which meant I would get to fly to Washington the next day. As I flew over my hometown, I could see a huge march developing, with people gathering and preparing to march to the Lincoln Memorial. Before the press and the pundits knew, I knew that something historic was about to happen.
I learned that Dr. King had been assassinated from hearing Bobby Kennedy on television, who passed on the devastating news during a presidential-campaign appearance. Just as a new dawn seemed on the horizon for black people, we saw John F. Kennedy assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X assassinated in 1965, King assassinated in 1968, and Bobby Kennedy assassinated just a few months later—four heroes of the African-American community cut down during the zenith years of the civil-rights movement.
The passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which had been the most difficult of the three civil-rights acts of the 1960s to pass, followed quickly after the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy. The civil-rights movement had reached its crescendo.
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Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
No child of the civil-rights movement, as I was, could have failed to be influenced by Dr. King. He made me understand the ironic uses of nonviolent resistance, which can call down an opponent without passing a blow or even a word. I still am awed by King, a public intellectual who read widely in the works of philosophers and religious teachings, thought through and developed his own philosophy of life, wrote extensively about it even during his nonviolent campaigns, and convinced African-Americans that nonviolence was the path to freedom.
My own decision to become a civil-rights lawyer was influenced by the civil-rights movement and the paucity of African-American lawyers, but King’s activism has stayed with me and has always informed my work in Congress for full equality and representation for my disempowered constituents, D.C. residents, who are still fighting for “freedom now.”
Is there a song that for you evokes Dr. King’s legacy, or the civil-rights movement?
We Shall Overcome became the anthem of the civil-rights movement, sung whether at the conclusion of meetings or while being walked into jail.
Equally moving to me are two other signature songs of the movement—the rambunctious Ain’t Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around and the lonely but equally determined This Little Light of Mine.
Is Dr. King’s message relevant to any contemporary civil-rights or equality issues?
King was a man of his time, but he chose issues that resonate universally and perpetually—war and peace (the Vietnam War), poverty (the Poor People’s Campaign) and, of course, human rights (the civil-rights movement). It is difficult to think of another major leader who is remembered for so many large issues. However, it was King’s human-rights message and his philosophy of nonviolence that has traveled around the world and influenced people of every race and religion.
King’s words were addressed to an indigenous African-American movement, but like Shakespeare’s plays, the magic he imparted to those words and their universally recognized meaning have overwhelmed the particular setting and influenced the hearts, minds, and actions of men and women the world over.
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins.